- Edgar Degas
- LA TOILETTE, FILLETTE
- signed Degas (lower left)
- pastel and charcoal over monotype on paper laid down on board
- 31.5 by 28cm.
- 12 3/8 by 11in.
Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above on 22nd September 1917)
Bernstein Collection (acquired from the above on 22nd October 1917)
Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above on 7th January 1918)
Durand-Ruel, New York (acquired from the above in December 1920)
George E. Turnure (acquired from the above on 19th December 1929)
Laurence & Louise Turnure, Brussels
Sale: Kunsthaus Lempertz, Cologne, 6th May 1978, lot 156
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Durand-Ruel, Exhibition of Paintings by Modern French Painters, 1921, no. 6
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Degas Monotypes, 1968, no. 150, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from circa 1885)
Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Edgar Degas, Pastelle und Zeichnungen, 1984
Eugenia Parry Janis, 'The Role of the Monotype in the Working Method of Degas', in Burlington Magazine, part II, February 1967, fig. 46, illustrated p. 80
La Toilette, Fillette treats one of Degas' signature themes, that of a woman at her toilette. Seen in a three-quarter view from behind, as if unaware of the spectator's gaze, the woman is leaning over a bowl of water in the routine, calm movement of washing her back. In painting his nudes and semi-nudes, whom Degas studied so assiduously in the intimate confines of their boudoirs, the artist was interested in exploring the female body, rather than in representing his sitters as individuals. Degas rarely personified them, and concentrated instead on depicting the human form in a variety of rituals and movements. In his works on the subject of women at their toilette, the artist often depicted them in the process of washing, as in the present work, or drying their backs (fig. 1), a pose that allowed him to explore the nude in unusual poses.
Commenting on Degas' fascination with the representation of the human body, his contemporary Georges Jeanniot noted: 'Degas was very concerned with the accuracy of movements and postures. He studied them endlessly. I have seen him work with a model, trying to make her assume the gestures of a woman drying herself, tilted over the high back of a chair covered with a bath towel. This is a complicated movement. You see the two shoulderblades from behind; but the right shoulder, squeezed by the weight of the body, assumes an unexpected outline that suggests a kind of acrobatic gesture, a violent effort' (G. Jeanniot, quoted in Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 223).
At the time that he executed the present composition, Degas had developed an interest in photography, choosing subjects similar to those he explored in his oils and pastels (fig. 2). His bather scenes were usually staged in the artist's studio since he could not otherwise readily observe this intimate ritual. Nevertheless, the present pastel effectively recreates the spontaneity of the act and voyeuristic experience of watching a woman at her toilette. Richard Kendall commented on this particular series of bathers: 'The woman depicted is involved in the most commonplace process of washing known to Degas and his contemporaries. She has undressed in privacy [...] and stands in front of a table or wash-stand, sponging herself with water from a metal or ceramic bowl' (R. Kendall, Degas, Images of Women (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1989, p. 61). La Toilette, Fillette brilliantly exhibits Degas' ability to combine narrow observation from nature with a sense of extraordinary drawing and composition.
Unlike most of his later pastels in which Degas focuses almost entirely on the model, in the present work he broadens the scope of the composition by depicting the woman's surroundings. More complete and detailed than many other works from this series, it includes the bathroom setting with a wash-stand and a mirror before which a large jug, bottles of perfumes and cosmetics are lined up. Often choosing to depict his sitter from the back, Degas sometimes used the mirror as a means of depicting the woman's face (fig. 3). In La Toilette, Fillette, only a hint of the model's hair and the bright blue of the side wall are reflected in the mirror in front of her. The dynamic of the present composition is derived from its pronounced linearity, juxtaposing the straight lines of the marble tabletop, the shelf and the mirror with the soft curve of the woman's body.
It is in Degas' depictions of female figures that one sees most clearly his complex relationship with the old masters that he so revered. Technically Degas reverted to many of the practices that characterised the work of the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century, while at the same time deploying a bold and innovative approach. He made frequent visits to the Louvre to see the work of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, and in 1889 together with Giovanni Boldini visited the Prado, where he admired the collection of Venetian art. The increasing freedom and confidence of execution, evident in La Toilette, Fillette, was partly encouraged by Degas' study of his Venetian predecessors, exploring the painterly qualities of line as well as of the bold use of colour.